I am five years old and riding in the back seat of my father’s smelly old Plymouth. This is in 1947, long before the days of car seats for children. It’s freezing cold outside, and I am dressed in a snug pink snowsuit with a scarf tied so tight around my neck that I can hardly breathe. My seven-year-old brother and I are playing hide-and-seek inside the car: I try to hide so that, when he sticks his head over the passenger seat, he can’t see me.

First I lie with my face pressed into the crease between the seat and the backrest, but of course I’m in plain view. Then I lie down on the floor and try to cram myself under the front seat. This works for a moment, until my brother stands up on his seat and leans out over the backrest — and there I am. I feel a familiar frustration: no matter what game we play, he always wins. Just once, I’d like to beat him.

My father is distracted by the serious business of driving in the snow. The windshield keeps steaming up, and he has to wipe it constantly so that he can see the road ahead. He opens his window a crack to let some cold air in, and this gives me an idea: The next time my brother looks over the seat, I simply won’t be here. I’ll open the rear door and fall out. Won’t he be surprised!

I slide quietly over to the passenger side door and grasp the handle. It feels cold through my red mitten. Checking to be sure my brother isn’t looking, I release the lock and pull the handle. The door swings open.

For a brief second, I am hanging on to the handle for dear life. Then I’m rolling down the gravel embankment by the side of the road. Everything is moving too fast. The gravel hurts my hands and face. I hear car brakes screech. I feel frozen and hot at the same time. Everything is quiet.

A big, sweet-smelling man picks me up in his arms. “There, there, little girl,” he says. “It’s all right. You’re all right.” His wool coat is rough against my face. I am shaking, but I don’t want to cry. My father has stopped his car and is running over to us, his face as pale as the snow. He is trembling as he takes me from the big man, and I see tears in his eyes. “Oh, my God! Oh, my God,” he says, over and over. I can’t understand why he is so upset. I’m afraid that he is angry at me, but he’s not. He carries me back to the car and gently sits me down in the front seat next to my brother, who is saying, “I don’t understand. She just opened the door and fell out. Why did she do that?” My father chokes back tears.

As we ride home in silence, I wonder, Did I win?

Betsy-Ann Toffler
Cliffside Park, New Jersey

My sister had a rich and varied bag of tricks with which to annoy me, but there was one that irked me more than all the rest. Every time we went to a restaurant, she would order whatever I ordered. Even if I made her order first, she would jump in after I ordered and tell the waitress, “I changed my mind. I’ll have the cheeseburger, too.”

Only later, when we were grown, did she explain, “I wanted to be like you, and I thought if I ate what you ate, I would be.”

Lisa Rung
Sewanee, Tennessee

“You know,” my mother would say, “your sister’s got great-looking legs.” Or, “Your sister is just naturally athletic.”

I developed an intense jealousy of my younger sister, with her blond hair (mine was a nondescript brown), perfect vision (I’d worn thick glasses since first grade), and evenly tanned skin (I had freckles). I kept my feelings to myself, however, not wanting to give my sister the satisfaction of knowing I thought her superior.

Years later, in a restaurant on Christmas Eve, my sister and I had a huge fight. After the meal, we lingered in the parking lot, not wanting to part with so much anger still simmering between us. In the course of our fumbling apologies, my sister gave me her own view of our childhood. Our mother, she said, had always told her, “You know, your sister is much smarter.”

Kathryn G. Long
Richmond, Virginia

In the spring of my last year in college, I was accepted into an exclusive East Coast law school. Having no money, I applied for financial aid and worked two jobs all summer.

In mid-August, the day before I would pack everything I owned into my car and drive two thousand miles east to start my studies, the financial-aid office called. The woman on the phone said that, while she hoped it wouldn’t influence my decision to come to law school that fall, the school wasn’t loaning me a dime. I swore and hung up.

My older brother and I went out in the yard to play catch. He had an engineering degree and was about to start grad school on the GI Bill. He got almost all A’s, drove a new car, and had saved plenty of money while he was in the service. As we began to throw the football, I told him about the phone call.

“That’s too bad,” he said matter-of-factly. “Now there’s no way in hell you can make it.”

The next day, I loaded up and headed east. I had earned enough money over the summer to get there, pay my tuition, buy books, and live for two months. To make up the rest, I sold my car and took jobs that kept me up till all hours nearly seven nights a week.

It was hard being away from home. Classes were tough, and I was just barely keeping up. Once, I went without eating for a whole week, and my eyeballs turned yellow. I was perpetually broke and had no time for friends. Sometimes I wondered what had made me think I could do this. Then I saw my brother throwing me that football, telling me there was “no way in hell” I could make it.

I have been an attorney for twenty-five years. I tell everyone that my brother got me through law school.

John K. Addy
Billings, Montana

I was always afraid of my oldest sister, Harriet. Her tongue was razor sharp, and she didn’t seem to like the rest of the family — especially me. I was six years younger, bony-kneed and bucktoothed. “Scram, runt,” she would say to me. She spent much of her time alone in her room with the door closed, reading.

Sometimes, when she was out of the house, I would sneak into her bedroom and look around at her four-poster bed, her dressing table covered with little bottles of nail polish and perfume, her closet with all her shoes lined up, and her enormous doll collection, neatly arranged on shelves, each doll’s dress as crisp and fresh as if it had just come out of the box. I never dared touch anything in her room. When I was done looking, I’d slip out and creep back to the messy room I shared with my other sister, Franny.

Harriet skipped a year in school and won all sorts of academic awards. When she was preparing to apply for college, the whole family got in the car and drove from school to school so that Harriet could get a look at each one: Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Radcliffe. Franny and I huddled together and whispered in the back seat.

Harriet went off to Radcliffe in the fall, saying she was glad to be rid of us. We didn’t expect to hear from her until Thanksgiving. After a week, though, the letters started arriving. How were we doing? she wanted to know. How was the cat? Had the apples on the tree ripened yet?

Franny and I weren’t inclined to reply. What was there to say? I was still afraid of Harriet. I hardly even knew her.

In mid-October, a package arrived from Radcliffe. Inside was a thick pile of postcards, each stamped and preaddressed to Harriet. Holes were punched at one corner and a string looped through, tying all the postcards together. Harriet’s idea was simple: we would hang them on the bulletin board in the kitchen, and either Franny or I would pull one off each day and drop it in the mail. Most of the cards already had questions written on them. All we had to do was check YES or NO.

The stack of cards just hung on the string, collecting dust.

Now Harriet and I are in our sixties and both retired to Florida. In the last couple of years, I’ve begun to feel closer to her. I actually like her. But I haven’t asked if she remembers the postcards. I still regret never sending one of them.

Name Withheld

My siblings were educated at some of the most prestigious schools in the country. They give their time and money to environmental and educational issues, travel frequently, and have beautiful homes, spouses, and children. They belong to groups, committees, boards, and professional organizations. Their lives are full.

I, on the other hand, have lived alone for eighteen years with a chronic, debilitating illness. Because of their busy schedules, my siblings haven’t the time to assist me. Picking up my prescriptions, bringing me food, or taking out my trash is burdensome to them. I pay extra — out of my limited funds — to have food delivered, and I call on friends to take me to the doctor or the emergency room. Some of my siblings live within five miles of my home, but they find it easier to fly to Mexico than to drop by my house.

My sister and brothers are bright, educated, important people. I would trade them for other siblings in a minute.

Boulder, Colorado

They haunt me still, my mother’s four stillborn babies, my phantom siblings. Their names are as familiar to me as my own: Florence, Faith, Hope, and James Anthony. All three sisters entered life and left it within four years of my own birth. My brother was born — or, rather, not quite born — when I was eleven. My parents, my grandparents, and a host of friends and relatives prayed to Saint Anthony to let this baby live. I did my part; I prayed, too, and tried to be good. I felt sure that the baby would be fine. I was shocked when he was stillborn like the others.

I remember the burial of his small casket, my mother’s silent, stoic grief, and my father’s confusion and pain. There was only me to fill the endless void in my mother’s heart; only me to do well by my father.

Many times, I was made to listen to the stories of my siblings’ failed births, the litany of “if only”s. If I suggested that my parents pay more attention to me, their living child, they laid on the guilt: how selfish of me not to want to hear about my poor dead siblings, when I was the lucky one.

I imagined my siblings floating above me as disembodied, cherubic heads with wings where their ears should be. I wondered why I had survived, while they had died. Sometimes I envied them because they could do no wrong. They were always loved, never punished, somehow so much better than me. They were angels, and I was not.

Laura Miller
Claremont, California

My sister Martha, who is forty-seven years old, still hasn’t forgiven me for decapitating her Barbie doll when I was six. She tells everyone that I did it because I wanted to find out what was inside Barbie’s head. Really, I did it because I was mad at her.

Today, Martha called to wish me a happy birthday. She asked how my thirteen-year-old son was doing, and I told her about his recent electrical experiment in the living room, which produced huge sparks but luckily no bodily damage. She laughed. In the long pause that followed, I considered whether to tell her about another of his antics.

Last fall, when I was planting bulbs in my garden, I found two Barbie dolls buried in the earth. I surmised that they belonged to my boyfriend’s little girl, and that my son had put them there. The Barbies were lying side by side, face up, with dirt smeared over their blue eyes and shiny blond hair. Thinking they looked peaceful there, I covered them up, planted daffodils around them, and didn’t mention them to my son or my boyfriend.

Upon reflection, I decided not to tell my sister about them, either.

Josephine Ensign
Seattle, Washington

Around the family dinner table, my mother would often describe in glowing detail the births of her six children: the time of day, how quickly we came, and on which day of the week we’d been born. When she’d finished telling the stories, she would recite the well-known verses “Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace. . . .”

I was Saturday’s child, who “works hard for a living.” When my mother got to this line, her voice would become solemn, as if she were pronouncing a life sentence. With my child’s logic, I believed that I was destined to spend my Saturdays toiling in drudgery while everyone else frolicked and played. I imagined mowing the lawn, because that was what my father did on Saturdays.

To make matters worse, for the final verse, my mother would stand behind my brother Jack’s chair and soften her voice:

“But the child who is born on the Sabbath day,” she’d say adoringly, “is bonny and blithe and good and gay.”

Jack was the firstborn, named after our father, who was named after his father. Jack never got into trouble with our parents. He made good grades, played the violin, and was an Eagle Scout. The rest of us looked up to him and never questioned his unspoken status as the golden child. That’s just the way it was — and still is.

Jack lives in the house where our father grew up, a stately two-story brick colonial in an old neighborhood sheltered by ancient, towering trees. He followed our father into law, and they have a successful practice together. My brother has a smart, spunky wife and two sweet little girls who attend private school. They have a five-bedroom beach house and sometimes travel to Colorado, or Alaska, or the Caribbean. On Friday nights, when they’re too tired to cook, they have dinner at the country club.

If I still lived in my hometown, I could not afford a house anywhere near my old neighborhood, nor could I join the country club. I vacation in relatives’ beach homes. My family and I have everything we need, but few extras.

Marriage, children, career — none of it has come easily to me. My life often feels like a tangled mess, overwhelming at every turn, while my brother’s life seems charmed, uncomplicated. I don’t begrudge him his ease, though. He is a wonderful brother who would do anything for me.

Am I envious? Yes, but not of Jack’s material success. Rather, I envy the golden-child status that was bestowed on him at birth and that followed him through life, giving him a leg up in so many ways.

I know there are rewards to struggling one’s way through life, and at this point, I wouldn’t trade places with anyone. Yet I wonder: how might things have been different had I been born on a different day?

Susan B.
Huntingtown, Maryland

The story in our family is that, when I was born, my brother told my mother, “I don’t want the baby. Put it in the garbage can.”

My brother used to laugh hysterically outside my bedroom door while I practiced the violin. Once, he secretly read my diary, then blabbed to our parents that I had tried cigarettes. His room was decorated with Peter Max posters, and when I asked for one that he was taking down, he ripped it to shreds in front of me. I didn’t know what I’d done to deserve such a brother.

Years later, when I was pregnant with twins and put on strict bed rest, my brother came to stay with us. He lived in a tiny upstairs bedroom in our tiny house for more than six months, taking care of my toddler and me while my husband was out of town. My brother made me special dinners and planted a garden with my daughter. After the twins were born, he woke up early each morning to take care of all three children so I could get some sleep after too many nights without any. He helped us through the hardest time in our lives.

I still don’t know what I did to deserve my brother.

Anjelina Citron
Bellingham, Washington

When I was little, my brother was my hero. Five years older and wiser, he taught me the facts of life and how to throw a football. Other times, though, he’d sock my arm or lock me in the closet. I didn’t get it. How could he be so kind one moment and so vicious the next?

Now, watching my older daughter cope with her new baby sister, I can see how I must have goaded him. I was a self-confident, overachieving little twerp, acting in a musical at age seven, topping him scholastically in high school, and, worst of all, sharing a special relationship with our mother.

At age thirty, I contemplated giving up my musical career to go into medicine. I phoned my brother, himself a physician, for advice.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said tersely. “If you want to go to medical school, go. If you don’t, don’t.”

Another unexpected smack. By this time, however, the reason was growing clearer: I was once again invading his territory, trailing after him like a smiling demon.

My hero brother recently turned fifty. We never discuss what it was like growing up together. He is disinclined to revisit the past; when I try to, he says I “think too much.” For my part, I am fed up with him for his inaccessibility, and with myself for still wishing that things could be different between us.

New Rochelle, New York

My younger brother was everything I wasn’t: athletic, outgoing, attractive, popular. I was excruciatingly clumsy, miserably shy, often the laughingstock. I consoled myself with the thought that at least I wasn’t competing with another girl — a beautiful younger sister.

In public, women often stopped to ooh and aah over my cute little brother, with his dimples and collar-length blond hair. (This was the seventies.) My total undoing came when a woman raved in front of me about “what a pretty girl” he was.

It was true — he even made a prettier girl than I did.

Name Withheld

As far back as I can remember, my older brother Bobby lived to torment me. Bobby’s nickname for me was “Pile” — short for “Pile of Shit.” He even made up a song about the name and would sing it to me when our parents weren’t around. I would take it as long as I could, then burst out screaming at him, using whatever obscenities I knew. Our mother would come in and yell at me while Bobby hid behind her, snickering. She never seemed to hear him.

One day when I was seven, I was walking across the street to the store, and our dog Prince followed me and was hit by a car. Prince yelped and cried and spun around in circles from the pain. Then he ran home, crawled under our house, and died a few days later. For months, Bobby told me that I had killed Prince.

Bobby’s taunts continued well into adulthood. I developed different theories over the years to explain his behavior. Maybe he did it because I took away his spot as the baby. Maybe he had middle-child syndrome. Maybe he just hated me.

One day, I was talking with a friend who was dating Bobby at the time, and she said that Bobby often told her he was very proud of me and loved me very much. I was astonished.

I soon discovered that it wasn’t just me: Bobby treats everyone this way.

My brother drives a tractor-trailer for a living, and when I see drivers who work for the same trucking company, I ask if they know him. They all have stories to tell about how Bobby torments them. Some get angry; others take it in stride; a few think he’s funny. When they find out I’m his sister, they usually offer their condolences.

Now Bobby’s wife calls me to share stories of the things he does to her. Often I can hear Bobby in the background, laughing proudly.

Janet M.
Charlotte, North Carolina

As a freshman in high school, I envied my brother James, who was a senior and had his own keys to the family station wagon. The youngest of four and the only girl, I thought I would never be old enough to do anything.

James wanted to date Elizabeth, a junior who played the flute and sat next to me in the orchestra. She wore long floral skirts and brown leather work boots and had thick, straight hair cut in a style that wouldn’t catch on for five more years. My brother wasn’t the only one infatuated with Elizabeth. Many boys admired her, but she didn’t seem to notice or even particularly care.

To my surprise, Elizabeth invited me to join her one night at Pappi’s Pizza and Pub, a dark restaurant where a crowd of older kids — including my brother — hung out. That night, James moved nervously about the room, talking to his friends and occasionally looking toward the corner where Elizabeth and I were.

Elizabeth sat on top of the table with her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hand. Gazing down at me from her perch, she asked me what I was thinking. No one had ever asked me that before. Safely hidden away in the tight corner booth, I looked her in the eye and told her everything that was on my mind.

Thanks to Elizabeth, I became part of the regular crowd at Pappi’s and spent many nights talking to her. When I was with Elizabeth, I felt smart and interesting. Once, she told me I was a prodigy. I blushed and said it was nice of her to say so. Really, I wanted her to keep saying the word prodigy, because of the way it sounded coming from her lips.

Sometimes I would hear my brother’s voice and be reminded of his presence, but if our eyes met, he would look away quickly.

After a night at Pappi’s, James would drop me off first, so he could take Elizabeth home alone. I don’t believe anything ever happened between them; they weren’t dating.

Sometimes Elizabeth would invite everyone over to her house to play capture-the-flag in the park next door. Apparently, I was invited several times through my brother before I actually heard about it. James didn’t want me there. He didn’t want the responsibility of watching out for me, he didn’t want to have to drive me home afterward, and, though he never said it, he didn’t want the competition for Elizabeth’s attention.

The game had already started when James and I arrived. Knowing how to play, James took off into the park as soon as he’d cut the engine. I got out of the car and stood by Elizabeth’s driveway, wondering why I’d come, wanting to go home, but also wanting a reason to stay. Suddenly, a small, strong arm took me by my elbow, and I was off and running into the dark woods. It was Elizabeth.

We took a quick turn at a group of low bushes and dove into some tall grass, breathing hard. Elizabeth sat close to me and spoke quietly. She’d wondered why I never came to her house, she said. Then, with a rare smile, she said she was glad I was there. I felt a hot glow at the base of my neck.

With her face an inch from mine, Elizabeth explained to me that the point of the game was to capture the other team’s flag without being caught. She took my hand, and we moved like trained soldiers from one side of the park to the other. Several times, we passed within yards of the prize — a torn bandanna hanging from a tree limb — yet we never made a move to grab it. “Now?” I’d whisper to Elizabeth, but she would shake her head, squeeze my hand, and guide me to our next observation point.

Crouched in a culvert surrounded by bushes, we could see the flag and could have captured it right then, but we just sat and watched. “Why not go for the flag?” I asked quietly in Elizabeth’s ear.

“Because,” she whispered back, “then the game would end.”

I understood now. If we captured the flag, there would be no more hiding places, no reason for us to be sitting close together in the cradle of this gully.

I strained to see the expression on Elizabeth’s face, but the shadows moved, and she never fully came into view. I sat with my legs up to my chest, a firm hold on Elizabeth’s hand, trembling quite pleasantly. Her warm breath caressed my cheek in the cold air. Elizabeth and I sat like this in the darkness and watched as my brother James darted out into the chilly night and captured the flag.

Jan Stokes
University City, Missouri

My younger sister is traveling in Lhasa, Tibet, with a group of other medical students. From an Internet cafe, she writes me funny, vivid e-mails about her experiences: watching a yak being born in the Chinese countryside; midnight climbs to sacred mountaintops; singing “We Shall Overcome” at the back of a rickety bus. Reading her travelogues, I am amused, amazed, and deeply jealous.

I’m accustomed to these mixed feelings of admiration and envy; they’ve been part of our relationship from the beginning. You see, my sister is brilliant, not only in the sense of intellectual ability, but in the broader sense of the word: radiating light, fire, energy. She came into the world this way and immediately began to draw people to her flame. She was nicknamed “Sunshine” by one grandfather and “Little Buddy” by the other. (My older sister and I were loved, certainly, but we never received pet names.)

My younger sister’s natural charisma was enhanced, not diminished, by her severe asthma. Recovering from an attack, she’d crack jokes or mimic Carol Burnett in between puffs on her nebulizer. Somewhere in the family archives are pretend radio shows that she improvised into our old tape recorder while home with the flu. Wheezing audibly throughout, she played all the parts: host, guests, commercials. She even bebopped some jazzy theme music at the end.

There were times, growing up, when I would exact punishment for my sister’s adorableness. The physical abuse was minor: an infamous arm-pinching incident, some slapping, plenty of slammed doors. Much worse were the psychological attacks. Taking advantage of her loving nature, I invented a game called “slave,” in which I “allowed” her to bring me things and refused to let her kiss my cheek, even when she begged. To make her feel inferior, I used multisyllabic words and fancy phrases in front of her, then quoted Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Since our teens, my sister and I have developed a friendship based on mutual admiration of each other’s different gifts. I’d like to say that I’m past seeing myself as inferior to her; past the need to compete; past the secret desire to punish her for her brilliance. The truth, of course, is more complicated.

Soon I’ll attend my sister’s graduation from medical school. For the most part, I’ll genuinely celebrate her accomplishment. Some of the tears I’ll shed at the ceremony, though, will be for myself — for that part of me that inevitably feels eclipsed by her radiance.

Sara Waterman
Fort Collins, Colorado

Soon after my brother was born, more than a dozen relatives and friends gathered at our house. They came bearing gifts and money in festive red envelopes. In return, my parents gave everyone eggs that had been dyed red. This is the tradition at a Chinese baby’s murn yeet, the celebration marking a month’s survival.

My brother’s murn yeet was especially bountiful, as he was the first child born in America and, more importantly, the first boy. Deliveries arrived at our house for days. My sister and I ran around touching all the fancy packages, none of them for us. There was a finely crafted wooden highchair, a playpen, a stroller, a walker, and a bright yellow snowsuit. I’d never seen so many presents. My sister and I had never had such things in Hong Kong when we were small.

When my youngest sister was born, two years after my brother, there were no daily gift deliveries, no big celebration — just a few red-dyed eggs to share among ourselves.

It was my brother’s fate to be the only boy in a family that valued boys over girls. My mother and my grandmother would cater to his every whim. In the morning, if he was running late, he thought nothing of enlisting the entire family to help him get ready: my father ironing his shirt, my grandmother serving him breakfast, the rest of us running around the house pulling his things together. My brother seldom bothered to come to the table for his meals. Instead, my mother and my grandmother carefully chose the best pieces of chicken and duck to serve to him in the living room in front of the TV.

My brother got a new red bike all his own when he turned four. When I was ten, my sister and I got a bike to share. When my brother started school at a nearby college, my parents bought him a brand-new car, fire-engine red. My youngest sister, who went to college three hours farther away, had to bum rides from friends and rent a truck to cart her belongings back and forth.

My brother’s out of college now and working at a dot-com company in New York City. My parents still pay for his car insurance. One of my sisters and I regularly send money home to our aging parents. My brother drops a Mother’s Day card in the mail once a year — if he remembers. My mother doesn’t mind. “Your brother is a very busy boy,” she tells me.

My father can’t ask his son a question without getting an insolent response. He sometimes complains about how self-centered and abusive my brother can be. But, like my mother, he is blind to how their favoritism has robbed my brother of any sense of responsibility or civility. If my sisters and I complain, we’re accused of petty jealousy. We’re glad, though, to be better adjusted and more self-reliant. There are greater gifts than brand-new red cars.

Judy C.
Boston, Massachusetts

In the autumn of 1944, my father’s first wife and their only child, a four-year-old boy, were taken from their small town in Hungary and put on a train to Auschwitz, where, presumably, they were killed in the gas chambers. At that time, my father was a forced laborer traveling with the German Army deep inside Russia. He knew nothing of the fate of his wife and son until he escaped and returned to Hungary.

When the war was over, my father met my mother, herself a war widow, and they married after a brief courtship. Both of them were getting older and wanted to start a new family before it was too late. I am the only child of their union.

I never met my half brother, Peter, yet he was a constant presence in our little family. I was quite young when I learned of his existence, but my parents gave me few details. My father especially did not like to talk about the war years, though he carried a photograph of Peter in his wallet.

Growing up, I sensed that I represented two sons to my father. He expected me to be as good and successful and strong as the half brother who could never misbehave, never fail, never be weak. I tried to bear up despite a sickly childhood, early schooling under a communist regime, and the family’s escape to America, where I had to learn a new language and culture. Many times, I became ill from the effort.

When I disappointed my father, he’d cry, and I’d hate myself. The only acceptable grade in school was an A. The only acceptable way to go to college was on a full scholarship. The only acceptable job was with the best of companies. I had many successes, but many failures as well.

Through the years, I have daydreamed that somehow Peter survived and I will one day meet him, talk to him, get to know him. Every time I hear a story of a child who was saved from the camps and taken in by a Christian family, I secretly hope that it’s Peter’s story. I imagine he might discover some documents that will reveal to him who he is, and that my phone will ring. Then I could share with him my memories of the father who is no longer with us, and we could exchange stories of lives spent apart. I would love to compare my life to his. How sweet it would be finally to have an open rivalry with a flesh-and-blood brother.

Robert Weisz
Itasca, Illinois

My aunt Sonya died yesterday at age eighty-two. As far back as I can remember, Sonya and my mother, Anyuta, were at each other’s throats. Our families lived next door to one another in the thirties, giving the sisters ample opportunity to snipe at each other. My aunt disparaged the clothes my mother bought, her taste in furnishings, the friendships she maintained, and the way she reared us.

As the eldest of seven children, Sonya had been the first to sail from Russia to the U.S. She sent back two tickets for her favorite siblings, Esther and Mathos, but they changed their minds about leaving. So Anyuta and her new husband, Vladmir, took the tickets and traveled across the ocean to America.

Communication being what it was in those days, Aunt Sonya was not aware of the switch until she received a call from Ellis Island on the day Anyuta and Vladmir got off the boat. Sonya got over her disappointment, but my parents were never allowed to forget that it was she who had brought them to America.

After discovering that the streets in America were not paved with gold, Sonya joined the Socialist Party. Anyuta and Vladmir eventually followed, but in Sonya’s eyes, her sister was never sufficiently revolutionary. Sonya flaunted her radicalism at every opportunity, making scathing remarks about how little her sister understood Marx and Lenin and urging her to read and learn.

Sonya even strode about in a leather jacket with Lenin’s portrait on the lapel. My brother and I cringed when we had to travel with her, especially in the subway, where she would suddenly start singing socialist anthems at the top of her lungs. We’d hide at the other end of the car so as not to be associated with her.

To her credit, Sonya introduced us to classical music, art, and literature. But she also cultivated an air of superiority, implying that my brother and I were deprived because we did not own a Victrola with records by Caruso and Chaliapin or have Michelangelo prints on our walls — as she did.

My mother always said, “Sonya hated me because I was prettier and our mother favored me.” It was true, my mother had a flirtatious way about her and paid special attention to her appearance, especially her clothes. Even during the Depression, when we were on “home relief” (welfare), she managed to look like a model by sewing her own clothes and hunting for bargains. She wore high-heeled shoes that showed off her delicate ankles, and arranged her hair in a fashionable cloud of waves around her face. Aunt Sonya sneered at Mama’s fashion consciousness. Short and buxom, Sonya kept her straight black hair chopped off above the ears. Even in her wedding photograph, she wore her hair in the no-frills style of a “free” woman.

I had the misfortune of inheriting the same stocky build as Sonya. The resemblance between us irritated my mother, especially in my adolescence, when my independence developed along with my body. My mother could be fierce when she was angry, and during one confrontation she yelled, “Get out of my sight! Go to your aunt with the big tits! You are just like her anyhow!”

That outburst cut deep. I reacted by constricting my young breasts with too-tight bras, cultivating a stoop, and walking with my books in front of me to hide my changing body.

Mother died young, leaving Aunt Sonya without a sparring partner for many years. Now that Sonya has joined her, I know the two of them won’t waste a moment picking up right where they left off.

Ruth Corey Selman
West Palm Beach, Florida

According to my sister Karen, the defining moment in our relationship occurred one day in 1956 when our elusive Uncle Tom came to visit us in Rockaway and brought me a fancy china doll and Karen a horsehair tail for her new bike. For some reason, the story goes, I didn’t like the doll and wanted the tail, even though I was too young to ride a two-wheeler. I carried on so much that, in exasperation, Tom cut the tail in half and presented me with my “share.” For years after that, Karen practically despised me.

Though I didn’t remember the tail — or the doll, for that matter — I knew the story was true because our mother confirmed it and our father cited it as an example of how persistent I could be when I wanted something.

Karen and I behaved civilly toward each other as adults, but there was always the ghost of a grudge between us. She acted as though she had suffered greatly at my hand, and I nursed a private sorrow that I wasn’t closer to my only sibling. I traced all of our difficulties back to Uncle Tom and the horsehair tail.

Last year, long after our parents had both died and my sister had moved away and stopped speaking to me entirely, my elderly Uncle Tom showed up for a visit. I hadn’t seen him in decades. When I told him that Karen and I were now estranged, he asked why.

“Well,” I said, “supposedly it all started with that tail you cut in half so you could give a piece of it to me.”

“What tail?” he asked.

I told him the story as I knew it, expecting the details to jar his fading memory.

“Mary,” he said to me, “there never was any horsehair tail or china doll. I never even set foot in Rockaway until a few years ago — your parents wouldn’t have me in the house. If something like that happened, either your mother or your father must have done it, not me.”

“What do you mean they wouldn’t let you in the house?”

Tom told me that he and my mother had been enemies since childhood, all because he had supposedly stolen her money from underneath the flour bin and refused to give it back. My mother never got over it and would tolerate his presence only when she had to.

But why hadn’t he given the money back? I asked him. Wouldn’t that have put an end to the dispute?

My uncle scowled. “I didn’t steal anything,” he said. “She made it all up just to have an excuse to hate me.”

I now think that sibling rivalry may be genetic.

Mary G.
Forest Hills, New York